Bill Simmons Was the Subject of a Graduate Business School Case Study at Northwestern

Ryan Glasspiegel
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The commotion from last September involving Bill Simmons, ESPN, and Roger Goodell was made into a case study at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Along with a writer named Charlotte Snyder, associate professor Brayden King authored the case, and he led a discussion on it with two of his graduate classes this week. King, who has been a professor at Northwestern’s graduate business school for seven years after receiving a PHD in sociology at Arizona, is teaching a course entitled Power in Organizations: Sources, Strategies, and Skills.

The class, which I observed on Tuesday night, is generally about attaining influence in companies, navigating politics, and using your influence to improve organizations. Students had a diverse array of backgrounds, including corporate finance, healthcare operations, auditing, financial services, insurance, and dental equipment manufacturing.

The Simmons case was the students’ first one in the course. Due to licensing issues, we’re not able to publish very much of its text here, but it was very thoroughly researched. The 14-page study walked through the background of how Simmons arrived at and rose through the various platforms at ESPN, detailed the past issues Simmons has had with management and his podcast remarks, and talked about how Roger Goodell came to power. The case also summarized the Ray Rice incident, and discussed past “conflicts of interest resulting from financial partnerships” that had impacted ESPN’s coverage of the NFL.

The study, which was presented matter-of-factly and without editorialization, concluded by asking the following discussion questions:

Would Simmons renew his contract with ESPN in 2015? Was ESPN doing justice to  its twin missions of journalistic excellence and entertainment? Would losing Simmons hurt ESPN’s brand? Would Goodell be forced to resign? And in light of recent lawsuits regarding  drugs and violence endured and perpetrated by professional football players both on and off the field, was the NFL really too big to fail?

Much of the classroom discussion centered on the first and third questions. About two-thirds of the students were familiar with Simmons’ work. Some were regular Grantland readers, a few listen to all of his podcasts, and another loved the 30 for 30 series. Even those who were previously unaware of Simmons picked up on the dynamics of the situation pretty intuitively just based on having read the case.

Students inferred that Simmons was probably disciplined by ESPN more for his comments about his bosses rather than Goodell. When discussion turned to Simmons’ contract negotiations, there was the consensus that, while he adds tremendous value with both his vision and personality, of course ESPN would survive without him. Most thought that Simmons would also be more or less fine and continue to have a prominent voice in sports media if he were to leave, though they did feel his relevance may wane a bit without ESPN’s monolithic distribution.

One student aptly brought up a big wild card: Would ESPN be sensitive and fearful as to how Simmons would wield his influence towards negativity should he leave the Mothership? All in all, it was very interesting for me to see how a variety of professionals far outside the realm of sports media viewed this story.

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Switching gears from what that was discussed in the Northwestern case, it’s worth parsing through the various things that Simmons has said (or have been said about him) since the suspension.

At the end of a late-October podcast with Those Guys Have All the Fun author James Andrew Miller, Simmons asked Miller what he’s working on next, Miller turned the tables, and the audio skipped to Simmons coyly remarking that the past 20ish minutes of their conversation had been cut. MYSTERIOUS.

In February, Dan Patrick asked Simmons if he’s behaving. “Yeah. I’m keeping my head down, doing my work — you know how that goes,” Simmons said. “I’m trying not to say anything. I’m working harder than ever. I’m trying to confine [being provocative] towards sports and pop culture comments. There’s always going to be things that we do that I don’t agree with. I think DeflateGate was a phenomenal test of my internal will — not to say anything when we had a bunch of people going on and talking about a report that turned out to be completely debunked.”

Though Simmons did bash Ray Lewis for his Ballghazi commentary, it’s not as though he went after any of ESPN’s reporters, so that probably does qualify as restraint. In any event, he wasn’t disciplined by ESPN for the tweet about Lewis, or for ones critical of Mike Golic(who had fired the first shot) or Dick Vitale (who was passionately, and wrongly, sticking up for his buddy Jim Boeheim).

“My interest is high in re-signing Bill,” ESPN president John Skipper told SI’s Richard Deitsch in mid-February. “We like Bill. He has done good work for us. We continue to have a good collaboration, and I am anxious to have some discussions with Bill to see if we can continue to do things that work for ESPN. … Every time I have a discussion with Bill I start with: ‘Bill, what do you want to do next?’ I have not had that conversation with him recently but I will tell you that will be how I will start our conversation.”

In early March, Simmons joined Tony Kornheiser’s radio show, and walked through the background of Grantland. Eventually he got around to discussing traffic, saying they get about 10-12 million pageviews per week, but that they don’t game the system. “In January, I think we had almost 7 million uniques, which means all individual people who come to a site at least once,” he said. “But, there’s ways to chase uniques that we don’t do. Like, you can use Facebook. For instance, let’s say something happens. Let’s say you and I get arrested. Right now, for some false charge. If you put a story up fast enough about that, on Facebook they have this trending thing, and if you have a story quick enough you just get a ton of traffic. There’s ways to cheat it, but we just don’t do it.”

Kornheiser asked if Simmons has run up to resistance to his growth ambitions (he’d just said they’d like to launch more verticals) for Grantland because ESPN’s core business is televising games. “Here’s the thing,” Simmons said. “If you don’t have stuff — whether you call it a boutique site, or taking chances with documentaries, or launching smaller things — then you’re just Starbucks. Then you’re just showing games and SportsCenter, and you don’t really have a soul, I don’t think. I think Skipper gets that. Skipper gets that you have to have a couple of these things, because that’s what gives you layers and character. Once you lose that, and you just care about the games and the rights that you have, that’s when you get in trouble, I think.”

In an interview with Recode’s Peter Kafka (and it’s advisable to read the whole thing) in mid-March, Simmons continued to tacitly lobby ESPN to provide Grantland with more resources to grow:

I just think Grantland’s at a crucial point now where we’re doing the site that we have now really, really well. And that’s been the case now for about 14 months. So now the question is, what does that mean to ESPN? I don’t know. I don’t know that it’s a me decision — it’s what does ESPN want from this site? Because if they just want it to say the same, it’s going to stagnate a little bit.

Media conversations about Grantland often reach a point where people speculate on whether it’s making money (or, the extent of its losses). While the accounting of that can be quite difficult based on the way ESPN’s properties interact with each other, it was evident in his interview with Kafka that those questions are not lost on Simmons. He hoped for ESPN’s corporate staff to do a better job of monetizing his team’s multimedia output:

I think for what ESPN does as a company — it’s a company that’s built toward selling bigger things. They have deals with a lot of sponsors, and their money is going to gravitate toward bigger properties that ESPN has. The challenge for ESPN and a lot of other companies is trying to figure out how to keep those relationships, and also figuring out how to extend relationships, or create relationships with stuff that’s not Monday Night Football.

[…]

I do think, as a competitive person, the fact that we don’t have a sponsored studio yet is just perplexing to me. We shoot like 15 hours of TV in there. But I also don’t know anything about ad sales, and it’s probably a much more complicated landscape than I’m giving it credit for. But to me, that’s a no-brainer.

So, reading between the lines, it seems as though Simmons’ contract negotiations will be pegged to not just giving more resources to Grantland, but a concerted effort towards making more money from the work that he and his team are already creating. It’s impossible to fault him as a leader for doing that.

Shouldn’t a quality product that is critically acclaimed be making more profits?

While Simmons may have a strong point about monetization of their audio and video, there are various print pieces that they run that will never in a thousand years make back what they cost to create. Their masthead already lists nearly 60 contributors, about a dozen of whom have “editor” in their title. It may be irksome to Simmons that ESPN’s ad sales staff concentrates so much more on fulfilling Monday Night Football inventory, but that’s what the largess of Grantland is subsidized by.

The anti-Simmons faction in ESPN’s old guard is presumably skeptical about his asking for more. How much is enough? Shouldn’t they be driving more traffic with a staff that size? How many more writers should we be expected to send all over the country and the world for vanity projects? And, even if we give him everything he wants now, won’t he still want more later, and still continue to publicly bash our other employees?

From Simmons’ perspective, you could see why he would want to be on a platform where he could say literally whatever he wants, and never have to worry about censorship. One could also understand why he would want to prove the naysayers wrong, and thrive outside the Mothership as Dan Patrick has done. What form that could take — a startup a la Glenn Beck, an existing media outlet, or a segmentation wherein he writes for one place and produces multimedia somewhere else — would be anyone’s guess.

Though there could (almost certainly will?) be bumps in the road along the way, and even if Simmons himself does not feel this way now, it remains difficult to wager against he and Skipper striking a deal. While Simmons could have unconditional freedom of speech elsewhere, he would not be reaching as large of an audience, and it’s very difficult to imagine that anybody would fund something as large as Grantland for him to preside over.

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